Oregon’s politicians have done an appallingly poor job of managing the costs of the state’s pension fund. Would things get better with more secrecy? No.
But Gov. Kate Brown has given her blessing that her task force set up to brainstorm $5 billion worth of solutions can meet in complete secrecy.
Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System has at least $24.5 billion in unfunded liability. It’s a staggering pile of money. It means the state’s retirement system doesn’t expect to have anywhere near enough money to pay the pensions it owes as people retire in the future. And in turn, that means taxpayers must come up with the money to cover the expense and/or state and local governments have to cut services — things like teachers, police officers and roads.
To make matters worse, when it comes to fixing the problem, Brown has tried to avoid it. Before her 2016 election, she said she knew of no reforms that had a “clear, legal path” and offered “significant financial savings.” That was head-spinning even for political spin. Of course there is no clear, legal path to a solution that offers significant savings. Any significant change will be challenged in court by retirees. Brown set an impossible standard for PERS reforms.
After being elected, she has stayed away from PERS reforms, as if she didn’t dare jeopardize a single vote from state, unionized employees. Instead, she has been willing to pass the costs on to taxpayers. She supported a tax increase in the Legislature that failed.
She also created her task force to brainstorm ways to come with $5 billion to pay down some of the liability. So far, it has looked at a wide variety of options, including accelerating debt collections, selling off state lands, asking property owners to kick in more for wildfire suppression, changing the state’s liquor sales and changing worker’s compensation.
It sure would be good to hear what members of the task force really think about the options, but Brown has told them they don’t have to bother with being open to the public. Why not send a message that Oregon needs a frank, open discussion about the problem and solutions?
One of the critical reasons Oregon has $24.5 billion in unfunded liability is that the decisions that created the mess didn’t get enough scrutiny. It’s a mistake to empower secrecy in finding solutions.